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A HERMENEUTIC OF CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE AND CULTURE

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A look at both cultural and ancient support for the transformation of worship spaces to barriers to persons with disabilities and to encourage open access. This is an unpublished paper from 1996, that has been referenced now in a number of
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  A   H ERMENEUTIC OF C HRISTIAN A RCHITECTURE AND C ULTURE   Liturgy and Culture Fall 1996 Stephen J. Weisser B EGINNINGS   There is an irony about the contextualization of church architecture. On the one hand, it is the most immediately observable kind of contextualization that is possible. On the other hand, it is often the last type of contextualization to occur, because it usually involves considerably more expenditure of money, and takes longer to accomplish, than contextualizing liturgy or church music. Nonetheless, questions around the contextualization of worship space must be a priority for churches, both because people are so greatly influenced and formed by what they see, and because contextualization can never be profound unless it involves the worship spaces as well as the liturgy and music. 1   Stauffer’s fine beginning of her article in the excellent volume that she edited for the Lutheran World Federation’s study on worship and culture speaks very well to the purpose of this study. Stauffer speaks of an “irony” in contextualization because attention to inculturation of buildings, sanctuaries, and church plants is acutely necessary and usually requires a significant investment of time and money. Consequently, such inculturation often doesn’t happen.  The irony for me is that the first impression of many church buildings is usually a determining factor for visitors. A second irony is that even members of the community are shaped by what their building “says” about the Christian faith. The buildings that we use for worship speak volumes to all who enter therein, especially to visitors and strangers to the faith who are not privy to the individual architectural history of each building. In spite of the clear significance of the “message” of the worship  space, remodeling of church buildings and adaptations which address communal need and accessibility happen with a painful slowness, if at all. 1   S. Anita Stauffer, “Contemporary Questions on Church Architecture and Culture  ,” Worship and Culture in Dialogue  (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation Department for Theology and Studies, 1994), 167.  Weisser, Page 2 I believe that Stauffer’s indication that the financial impact of a congregation’s decision to effect change is absolutely on target for many communities, and I will address this briefly below. I also firmly believe that, in spite of the presumed or actual cost, contextualization of worship space must be a priority for churches today. What I propose to do in this study is look for a biblical hermeneutic which supports the basis of the Stauffer article. I also hope to show that this hermeneutic from scripture looks to answer her questions about priority and finances in her introduction and adds the following question to her list of nine questions in the article: How does an accessible worship space transcend culture and speak the incarnation and the open invitation of grace in baptism and the supper? To accomplish this task I would like to begin with a text. T EXT   When Jesus  returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their fa ith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat a nd walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—  he said to the paralytic  —“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” 2  This is a wonderful story and clearly an important one for the author, Mark. From the onset of his Gospel, Mark seeks to share the identity and purpose of 2  Mark 2:1-12, NRSV.  Weisser, Page 3 Jesus come into the world. For Mark it is “good news” and a new “beginning” that echoes the very beginning of the universe echoed in Genesis. Clearly in Mark’s Gospel the story has a strong importance for setting the tone for the reader to understand who Jesus really is. Following the inscription is the narration of John the Baptist and Jesus’ own baptism in the river Jordan. Immediately, Jesus is thrust from the water to the wilderness and from the wilderness to his first words in the Gospel that call for repentance and belief that good news has arrived in the world. After Jesus calls his initial community of four disciples, his first actions are narrated as healing miracles: an unclean spirit, Peter’s mother -in-law (all the while the whole city comes to his door looking for healing!), a leper, and the paralytic. The immediate setting for the healing of the paralyzed man is simply a house. It may have been that Jesus had taken up residence with Peter in the house of Peter’s mother -in-law, or it may be that Jesus lived in his own house in Capernaum. The text says that Jesus was simply (     ) “at home.” Seemingly simple, this phrase may have indicated to Mark’s readers a similar domestic setting that was their place of worship  —  the house church. While many scholars will argue the point back and forth, it is important to note that these “house stories” in Mark are not simply to be taken at face value. The whole city gathers about the door 3   The whole “crowd,” a collective anonymous group that appears in a great many settings in Mark, can fill and fit in the house. A lot more is possible in the house than is possible in reality 4  It is the setting of the house that forms the basis of the following discussion. The house was packed, unusually so. The house was packed so tightly that no more could enter. Some men came, bearing a friend who was paralyzed, and they could not get to Jesus. Their goal was to get their friend to Jesus  — a task that, in Mark’s story, is set up as impossible! The men’s s olution is literally to “dig” a hole in a section of the roof in order to lower their friend to Jesus. Considering the style of the house (probably a flat roof covered with sticks and dried earth), this was a creative solution to the dilemma. Similarly important to this discussion is a point that often goes unnoticed in the story: Jesus “sees,” in this action, the faith of the bearers . This precedes the narrated discussion of forgiveness and healing so important to the story. The Gospel of Matthew tells the same story at a much later place in his Gospel, giving a much briefer account. 3  Mark 1:33. 4  See Bas van Iersel,  Reading Mark   (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark LTD, 1989), 43-68.  Weisser, Page 4 But when the Markan story is set along side of the Lukan parallel, the hermeneutic that I seek begins to emerge. Luke tells the same story, in almost as much detail as Mark. There is, however, an interesting change in the setting of the house. In Luke’s story, the building is transformed. On the surface, it makes sense. Luke is telling the story to a much more Hellenized constituency. Their houses are not at all like the house in Mark. Therefore, no longer is the “house” a thatch and mud hut, but the kind of Greco -Roman house in which most of his audience probably lived. The space is adapted so that the story will make sense in a different setting. So, here in Luke, the “tiles” of the roof are removed so that the paralyzed man could be laid before Jesus. One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. . . . 5  What Luke seems to be doing to the house in the story is the same thing that the friends are doing for the paralyzed man in all three synoptics: modifying t he existing space in order to bear the needy to Jesus. The narrator’s task in this story is not simply to recount the facts, but to bring the reader into the house before Jesus as well. To do that the house must be recognizable as a house, and modified for this task. Christian churches (whether new construction or existing worship spaces) need to be familiar spaces broken open to a new purpose. That is, such holy places need to be accessible ways to Jesus Christ. To test this hypothesis it would he helpful to find some correlation through the history of Christian architecture that uses this hermeneutic, either implicitly or explicitly, in ordering worship space. If, as some scholars argue, Mark is adding elements of early house churches to his story, then we have found our evidence. Luke’s treatment of the same story also seems to support the idea that worship buildings must serve the Gospel purpose first. There is also some intriguing external correlation with this hypothesis that I will turn to in a moment, but first some discussion of the relationship of culture and early Christian architecture is necessary. 5  Luke 5:17-26, NRSV.  Weisser, Page 5 E ARLY C HRISTIAN W ORSHIP S PACES   Christians didn’t invent worship spaces in a vacuum, nor did they approach, in a vacuum, the questions of where to worship and how shall the buildings used for worship be constructed or shaped. Christian worship spaces were not constructed from scratch, but from historic, common, domestic, practical, and religious spaces that were known to the people. Most certainly, the worship spaces and rituals of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and the synagogue would have a direct relationship to Christian worship spaces. A dialogue would be as natural as the branch of David that grew into the Christian Church. This dialogue, however, would not be limited to just one partner. All of the religious experience of the diverse region of the Mediterranean as well as the domestic and magisterial spaces would also find a place in the dialogue. A few brief comments on pagan worship spaces of the time and their relationship to the Jerusalem temple, synagogue, and early Christian house churches might serve to illustrate this point. Pagan worship spaces generally centered on a specific site, or around an image of the god. This relationship was a place of connection linking the place or object to the presence of the god. The space was sacred because of the site or the image of the god. Pagan worship spaces tended to be hierarchical in construction. They would contain at lest three distinctive areas: an outer court, or common area for the people, a holy place reserved for the priests who mediated the blessings and exhortations of the god to the people, and an inner-most holy place that was the dwelling place of the god. It should not be surprising that this hierarchical architecture supported a parallel hierarchical pyramid of leadership and importance of priests verses the laity. One could draw some rough parallels with the Jerusalem temple tradition. Clearly, the Jerusalem temple was recognizable to the general public as a place of worship. It had the same over structure as many other temples. There were, of course, some significant differences in theology and the understanding of the space. In the early years, the inner sanctuary  —  the holy of holies, contained the ark of the covenant, not an image of YHWH. Once the ark was destroyed or carried away as war booty in 587 BCE, the holy of holies was left empty. The presence of YHWH was never limited or tied down to the temple. In fact, time and again the Hebrew scriptures reflect the fact that YHWH neither needed nor desired a permanent dwelling place. The Jerusalem temple was to be the only place for sacrifice. It was not meant to be one of many temples scattered from town to town, copied across the countryside. While there was
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